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Hero, Conspiracy, and Death: The Jewish Lectures

Translated by Alex Shannon

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Maria Janion

With Hero, Conspiracy and Death: The Jewish Lectures, the author has written a book of sweeping significance for readers interested in Polish history, Jewish history, and the Holocaust in which she asks troubling questions: Can a Jew be both a Jew and a Pole? Are we right to talk of «worthy» and «unworthy» death in the Holocaust? What are the implications of Adam Mickiewicz’s philo-Semitism? In Zygmunt Krasiński’s anti-Semitism, do we see the «specter of elimination»? Are humanist and enlightenment values useful in analyzing the Holocaust, or did the experience of Nazi genocide render them obsolete? Tracing the history of anti-Jewish stereotypes in early nineteenth-century Poland (and beyond), the author offers answers to these questions that are bold, clear and compassionate.
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Part One

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The Enlightenment discourse tended to rationalize and utilize, and this discourse applied to Jews as well, to those foreign particles in societies that one found irritating, offensive. Until then it had been thought that Jews could not be integrated, trimmed to size, or evened out. Most often, Jews in Europe were viewed as distinct, in a negative sense, and special attention was given to the radical (often demonized) otherness of their religion, dress, language, behavior and customs. Christianity had long before worked out the concepts and norms by which “communication and association of Jews with Christian society were to be prevented” and the discriminatory “division between Christian society and the Jewish minority” was to be strengthened.163

The Enlightenment – at the center of which was the battle against “superstition” – wanted to “civilize” the Jewish religion and thereby make Jews somehow useful. The belief that Jews do not work, and that they – though idle – are constantly attempting to enrich themselves, was common, and of course this belief was reinforced by the fact that many Jews – in part because of socioeconomic restrictions – were heavily involved in trade and money lending. The image of the Jew as parasite, cunning swindler, usurer, speculator and bloodsucker had deep roots in the European imagination. Precisely for this reason Jacques Attali wrote, at the start of his book The Economic History of the Jewish People, that he was “well aware of the subversive nature of this subject. It has unleashed so many controversies and...

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